First, Republican Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced a special legislative session that ended with Republican lawmakers rushing through a six-week abortion ban.
Then he signed it at a major conservative summit attended by half a dozen Republican presidential candidates.
Now, he has once again invited more of those candidates to sitting at the Iowa State Fair next monthwhere, invariably, their six-week ban could be a prominent topic of discussion.
It’s a series of moves, coming six months before the Iowa caucuses, that in many ways challenge a crucial takeaway from the 2022 midterms: that talk of abortion restrictions is political poison for Republicans.
However, the strategy is not likely to hurt Republican candidates in Iowa, which has a strongly religious conservative base in the GOP. But appearing to accept a six-week abortion ban or focus too much on the restrictions could cause them headaches down the road, political observers in the state said.
By escalating the issue and advocating a hard ban, Reynolds is effectively pushing candidates to follow his strategy in the 2022 midterms. It was an election in which he made his support for a six-week ban a major part of his campaign, winning by 18 percentage points, despite national trends showing the issue to be an issue for Republicans.
“One of the things we know from last year’s midterms is that Kim Reynolds did very well, and abortion was definitely a topic that really helped,” said Tim Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa and an expert on state politics. “This was something that Kim Reynolds was essentially running into.”
“Democrats [nationally] he leaned heavily on the subject and was very successful for them in many places. But the ‘red wave’ still happened in a couple of places: one was Florida, the other was Iowa,” Hagle said.
However, that tactic carries substantial risks for any candidate who might advance beyond the caucuses, and many Republican candidates seeking to match Reynolds’ touch on the issue have nevertheless struggled to find their footing.
NBC News has contacted the Republican presidential candidates for comment. Only the campaign of Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina responded, pointing out your support for a national ban at 15 weeks.
For one, siding with Reynolds’s position gives candidates a chance to reiterate a position that, for decades, has been Republican orthodoxy: abortion laws should be left up to the states.
But the candidates haven’t really done that.
At the Family Leadership Summit last week, where Reynolds signed the bill into law during a special onstage presentation, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who, unlike Reynolds, signed a six-week ban for his own state in a quiet, publicity-free ceremony) declined to answer questions from moderator Tucker Carlson about whether he would sign a six-week nationwide ban.
In meetings with reporters, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson touted their support for a 15-week nationwide ban. Former UN ambassador (and former South Carolina governor) Nikki Haley said Reynolds «knocked it off» after his signing, but did not discuss his own position.
“You have to decide who you are. Are you a social conservative candidate or not? It can’t just be a tactic,» said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director who now works as a political consultant in the state, referring specifically to DeSantis. Although Reynolds gave him the opportunity to do so, «he’s not championing him as a strong social conservative candidate,» he said.
More broadly, Robinson continued, “Republicans still need to figure out how they want to send a message about abortion.
“Everyone wants to blame us for losing all these elections. [in 2022] because Donald Trump sucks, right? I think we lost all these elections because… there was no message about abortion,” Robinson said. The rocky terrain underscores the struggles Republicans have generally endured in speaking to voters about abortion rights in the year since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling struck down Roe v. Wade.
Reynolds’ law, the product of a marathon 15-hour special legislative session that he said he called for the «sole» purpose of «enacting pro-life legislation,» bans abortions in the sixth week of pregnancy, placing him squarely among the most stringent state reproductive health care laws in the nation.
The measure includes exceptions for the life of the woman, miscarriages and fetal anomalies considered by a doctor as «incompatible with life», as well as for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. But for the latter two to apply, a rape must have been reported to the police or a “public or private health agency” within 45 days, and incest must have been reported to any of those officials or entities within 140 days — limits that critics say are both arbitrary and difficult to meet.
The law remains temporarily blocked by a state judge while an ongoing legal challenge brought by reproductive rights groups plays out.
A Reynolds spokesman did not respond to questions from NBC News about his public approach to the law.
Republicans running to the right in Iowa’s Republican race are nothing new: The state’s evangelical Christians are a key voting bloc that candidates must win to place forcefully in the caucuses. But being publicly forced to take a position on such a restrictive abortion law, the path forward for the candidates could be more complicated.
For example, support for a six-week state ban, as DeSantis has said, will almost certainly accommodate a candidate in the upcoming 2024 primary state, New Hampshire.
The state’s libertarian-leaning Republican electorate tends to be more open on the issue; Governor Chris Sununu, for example, is among a small list of Republican governors who support abortion rights.
And the lucky few who make it to Super Tuesday, or beyond, would have to compete with even less restrictive attitudes on abortion, even among Republican voters.
An NBC News poll released last month found that 61% of all voters disapproved of ousting Roe, while 57% said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported a six-week abortion ban (29% said they were more likely to support that candidate).
However, at least one candidate appears poised to benefit from Reynolds’ approach: Donald Trump.
The former president has criticized the state’s six-week abortion bans as being “Too hard,he skipped the Family Leadership Summit and ripped apart the popular Reynolds for remaining neutral in caucuses (a long tradition of the state governor). It is unclear if he will sit with her at the state fair.
While those actions don’t necessarily bode well for his support in Iowa, Trump remains well ahead in early polls for the Republican primaries, both nationally and in several other early voting states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina.
That could mean Reynolds’ actions don’t apply to Trump, further cementing his (very early) status as front-runner.
“The safe position for the Republicans is what Donald Trump says. That it is a matter of State,” said Robinson, who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. Trump has not taken a clear position on abortion either, although he is clearer He suggested the issue is left to the states and has blamed the hard-liners of Republican candidates for the party’s underperformance in the midterms.
“The guy who leads the race by a substantial margin is right on the subject,” Robinson said. «It’s the right thing to do, politically.»